In my lifetime, music has been delivered on vinyl, cassettes, eight-track tapes, CDs, and audio DVDs. How do I listen to it now? Usually with a PC or a smartphone, and occasionally with an MP3 or other media player. I downloaded much of that music or ripped it from CDs, but the rest of it came from LPs and cassettes.
If you have an analog turntable, digitizing 33-rpm LPs and 45-rpm single records is straightforward. Old-school turntables require grounding and a preamp, so you can't plug them directly into most PC audio interfaces. Instead, connect the turntable to a stereo receiver's phono jacks and the ground wire to the ground screw on the receiver. Then run the receiver's tape or line out to the line input of your PC's audio interface (normally the light blue mini-stereo jack on the back). You'll need an RCA-to-mini-stereo converter cable.
Tape players (aka tape decks)--whether they are cassette, eight-track, or reel-to-reel--have line-level outputs that you can attach directly to the line inputs of your computer's audio interface. To convert music from these players, too, you must have an RCA-to-mini-stereo converter cable.
USB-Connected Audio Recording
USB turntables and cassette decks make digitizing your LPs, 45s, and cassettes a bit simpler by performing the analog-to-digital conversion onboard, and then transferring the results to your PC via USB cable. If you're not picky about audio quality, these devices work fine; however, none of the units that I tested could create sound files that were up to rigorous audiophile standards.
Crosley Radio's products have a distinctive, appealingly retro look. The US$400 CR2413A Memory Master that I tested includes a turntable (33, 45, and 78 rpm), a cassette player, an FM radio, a CD player, and auxiliary line-level stereo audio inputs for other audio devices such as MP3 players--all of them recordable to your PC via a USB connection. Alas, the quality of the unit's components (especially the turntable) was a tad disappointing. The digitized sound was decent, but again, it did not approach audiophile quality.
The quality of Ion Audio's $300 LP 2 CD turntable, in contrast, was impressive, offering the antiskate and tracking pressure adjustments missing from the Crosley CR2413A. The sound from its preamped analog line outputs was very good, but its USB output sounded little better than the Crosley's.
Another Ion product, its $120 Tape 2 PC cassette deck, created middling audio recordings in my tests, regardless of whether I connected it via the USB or via the analog line outputs.
Editing Your Sound Files
Once you've connected your hardware, use a program such as Audacity (free) to record, edit, and save your newly digitized music. Don't bother trying to separate each song during the recording process--record wholes sides of records and cassettes. Any audio editor or recording app worth its salt lets you select and save individual sections of an audio file. The start and end points of songs are easy to spot by the changes in the visual wave form. The editing software will let you select and save each individual track to a file that you create on your PC. You can ditch the larger file once you've split it up. If you intend to apply noise reduction (see the next section below), don't trim your recordings until after you've cleaned them up. Noise reduction software can use the spaces between tracks to "profile" noise for more effective processing with less loss of dynamic range throughout the spectrum.
If you're not especially concerned about the sound quality, saving your recordings to compressed MP3, AAC, or WMA is fine. Experts differ on which bit rate sounds best for each format. I use at least 192 kilobits per second for MP3 and AAC files, and 160 kbps for WMA files. For classical music, I bump those rates up to the maximum (320, 256, or 192 kbps, depending on the format) or use the free FLAC lossless codec. For devices that don't support FLAC--and many do not--I use Windows' or Apple's lossless formats.
If you want audiophile-quality sound and your audio interface supports doing so, you should record at something higher than the CD-standard 44.1kHz/16 bits, and then save your recordings as uncompressed WAV files. Recording at 24 bits or 32 bits, and at 48kHz or even 96kHz can alleviate the "sterile sound" that audiophiles complain about; it also yields better results when you apply effects and noise reduction. You can always export the files later as MP3, AAC, or another format. If you don't have enough drive space to accommodate these larger files, get a bigger hard drive.
Despite manufacturers' touting of high-definition, surround-sound, and high-bit-rate features, most PCs don't output sound that's audiophile quality. Nor do they handle the analog-to-digital conversion of input content very well. For dramatically better analog transfers, use a USB audio interface such as Presonus's $200 Audiobox USB, Avid's $330 Pro Tools Mbox Mini, or Focusrite's $200 Saffire 6. Internal sound cards are available, but USB devices are portable and are suitable for use with laptops.
If the above-mentioned Audacity is a little too geeky for your taste, you can find a number of affordable recording/editing programs such as Cakewalk's $40 Pyro Audio Creator 1.5 and Bias's $50 SoundSaver that are designed specifically for digitizing analog music. Both of these products also offer easier, more-effective noise reduction than Audacity.
The biggest problem with analog audio is noise, which gets digitized along with the music. Vinyl suffers from clicks, pops, and scratchiness, while hiss plagues tape. Recording apps such as Audacity include restoration features that can help remove the noise, but they're difficult to use and can kill the dynamic range of your music if you use them improperly. Most commercial high-end sound editors such as Adobe's $349 Audition 3 provide effective noise removal. If you want the best editing software, however, you should look to either Bias's $129 SoundSoap 2 or iZotope's $349 RX 2. In my tests, I found SoundSoap 2 simple to use, and the audio files that I created with it sounded great. Nevertheless, I got even better results from the RX 2, which created audio that blew me away, especially during quiet passages.
Audio and Video Transfer Tips
Before digitizing your audio, don't forget to clean your vinyl, turntable needle, or the playback head of your tape deck (audio or video). Cheap accessories and fluids are available for removing the dust and grunge from your LPs, but Q-Tips and isopropyl alcohol will work just fine for a cassette deck. Eyeglass cleaning cloths also work well on record/playback heads.
Old cassettes and tape (music, video, or data) can be finicky--especially if they haven't been used in a while. Richard Corsello, a professional engineer and transfer specialist of 30 years who currently works with Sonny Rollins, recommends a quick fast-forward and rewind through the entire tape to respool and loosen the mechanism before transfer, as well as every couple of years in storage. Also, believe it or not, giving the tapes an overnight stay in a food dehydrator can pull out the mold or other moisture-related gunk. I did that recently with some old reel-to-reels from the 70s, and it worked like a charm.
Make sure your audio cables are in good shape, and that there's no rust, corrosion, or junk on the connectors. However, don't go crazy with "pro" audio cables. Vendors play on the subconscious perception that the more valuable the metal, the better anything made with it must be. To a slight extent this is true. Gold tips reduce oxidation, and the softness of the metal makes for slightly firmer connections; however, in the chart below, look where platinum winds up. According to every blind test ever done, you'll hear no difference between a $10 cable and a $50 cable as long as they are reasonably well made. In other words, the cables that came with your equipment are most likely all you need.
Metal, Specific Resistance per Cubic Centimeter, in Micro-ohms*
Silver, annealed, 1.50
Copper, annealed, 1.62
Gold, annealed, 2.05
Aluminum, annealed, 2.91
Zinc, pressed, 5.61
Platinum, annealed, 9.04
*A lower number means less resistance and better conductivity
Turntables, Needles, and 78s
There's a ream of information about turntables out there--the features and sound of these marvels were an obsession with audiophiles long before boutique cables, oversampling of CDs, and so on. Any decent turntable should do, but tracking and pressure adjustments will reduce degradation of your vinyl and help with records that skip. If the turntable has seen a lot of use, a new needle and/or cartridge might be in order. However, I've never heard any difference after changing these--but that's with my ears. If there's a problem with warbling (regular pitch changes), the belt might need to be replaced.
While you can play 78 rpm records with a 33/45 needle, 78s have a wider groove and require a specialized needle for best results as well as preserving the record. Needle Finder or Needle Doctor sell these for just about every turntable ever made. If your turntable doesn't spin at 78 rpm, you may record at 33 or 45 rpm and increase the speed using the recording app. The free Audacity makes this particularly easy--all you have to do is pick the rpm you recorded at and the rpm that the record was made at--for example, 33/78--press Enter, and the recording will be changed to the proper speed.
Tape Decks and Belts
That vast majority of tape decks sold to consumers used belts as part of their drive system. These belts tend to stretch with age as well as usage--I've seen older, never-used cassette decks come straight out of the box that still needed new belts. Most vendors who sold cassette or tape decks still have belts in stock, and you can buy belts by size at Studio Sound Electronics.
Caveat: While replacing a turntable belt generally requires nothing but lifting the actual spinning turntable that the records lay upon and slapping a new one on, changing the belts on a cassette deck can be more daunting. Removing the outer case is easy, and many decks require removal of only one or two parts. However, some bury the belts beneath a Rube Goldberg-ian maze of interconnected components. It can be easier just to buy a new deck, though if you like puzzles, solving the order and disassembly methods can be rewarding.
Music OCR, and Sheet Music From MP3s
There are some interesting ways to digitize and manipulate any sheet music or recordings you may have.
Hear Your Sheet Music
If musical notation is Greek to you, but you still want to hear what all the sheet music your aunt left you sounds like--simply scan it and convert it to a MIDI file. MIDI files will play back using such readily available programs as Windows Media Player and QuickTime Player. The process is called music OCR.
The big players in music OCR are Neuratron with its $49 PhotoScore Midi Lite 5 and $249 PhotoScore Ultimate 6, and Musitek with its $49 SmartScore Midi and $399 SmartScore X. They not only create MIDI files, but create and allow you to edit notation.
Most users will be fine with the less expensive versions, and you can even get a free music OCR program--the Java-based Audiveris. Audiveris is pretty geeky, though, and you must come up with the required Maestro font on your own if you want to view the results as onscreen notation. The program will still save the results to a MIDI file whether you have the fonts or not.
If your granddad or aunt was an aspiring composer or orchestrator, you may even import the resulting MIDI file into a high-end notation program such as MakeMusic's $600 Finale 2011, Avid's $599 Sibelius 6, or Notion Music's $249 Notion 3, and listen to it played by a full symphony orchestra. Who knows? Maybe Beethoven will finally have to roll over.
If you're interested in better notation editing than that provided by PhotoScore and SmartScore OCR applications, but don't need the sounds of a full orchestra or other advanced features of the pricey editors listed above, more-affordable consumer versions are available: MakeMusic's $120 PrintMusic, Avid's $129 Sibelius First, and Notion Music's $119 Progression to name three.
Create Sheet Music from Recordings
If you don't have sheet music, but do have audio recordings that you'd like to hear as MIDI files or see as sheet music, there are programs that transcribe your audio to MIDI and notation as well. Though the technology is far from perfect, Neuratron's $249 AudioScore Ultimate 6 and the $149 Intelliscore Ensemble 8 do a much better job recognizing the notes in a recording than you might think possible. The simpler the material and the more diverse the range of the instruments, the better the results, but you should be able to get a broad, usable sketch of just about anything--and maybe even turn that recording of the ditty that Uncle Joe used to sing at the family picnic into a top 10 hit. More likely, you'll wind up with a nice piece of sheet music with Joe's name on it. A treasure in any case, depending, of course, on how much you liked Joe.